A rabbi from a settlement in the West Bank came to Baltimore last night seeking contributions for armored school buses and bulletproof vests for his town of 8,000.
"We are in the middle of a war," Shlomo Riskin told more than 500 people at the Suburban Orthodox Congregation in Pikesville. "It is a very cruel war, a very disturbing war. We are in the frontline of the battle. The soldiers are civilians, mothers and schoolchildren."
Riskin is from Efrat, a settlement south of Bethlehem where the family of Yaakov "Koby" Mandell moved five years ago. Thirteen-year-old Koby and a 14-year-old friend were killed nearby in May. Riskin told of ministering to the family and conducting the funeral that was delayed because the bodies were beaten beyond recognition.
Several other residents of Efrat have been victims of the violence. Riskin said members of his congregation wonder every day if it is safe for their children to go to school, if it is safe to live in certain apartments.
"An armored school bus costs $250,000," he said. "The government gives us $100,000. Surely a gathering like this can give us the other $150,000."
His visit is part of a drive by a group called Ohr Torah Stone to raise almost $2 million for six armored buses, 380 bulletproof vests and other protective measures and devices.
Michael Witkes, executive director of Ohr Torah Stone in North America, said last night's crowd was the biggest that had turned out to hear Riskin, who makes monthly fund-raising trips to the United States.
Riskin, originally from Brooklyn, N.Y., said the fighting was not just a war against the Jewish people, but against "all free peoples."
Declaring he was "proud to be a settler" in Israel, Riskin said the people of Efrat are fighting against Islamic fundamentalism, comparing it to Nazism and Communism.
He said he faced some of his most difficult moments as the mother of Koby Mandell wondered if she should have come to Israel and put her child in danger. He read a passage from the Torah that called on those who would fight to settle the promised land to risk their children in the struggle.
"I do not want you to trade places with me," Riskin said. "I am happy to be where I am. But if you came to visit us every year before, you must still come. If you sent your children before, you must still send them.
"If Israel is Disneyland, then only come when the sun is shining," he said. "But if it is the motherland, then you must come when she needs you the most."